tisdag 20 november 2012

The Art of Comics. A Philosophical Approach. Edited by Aaron Meskin and Roy T Cook

I've always been a bit suspicious when people from the so-called "high culture" sphere descend to the comics sphere to apply its tools and sensibilities on it. Basically, this distrust is based on a bunch of instances where I've seen people apply not so much tools and sensibilities as 1) prejudices and ignorance, and 2) political opinionating.

Now, I've got nothing against political opinionating per se; in fact, I've been known to engage in it myself from time to time, but when you let it take over what was supposed to be an essay or article about a particular comic, you sort of lose the purpose of writing about that comic, don't you? And, if you're arguing that Donald Duck comics are inherently imperialistic, or that The Phantom is inherently racist, you're just putting forth your own prejudices and ignorance, anyway.

The people – or, more precisely, the philosophers – behind the essays in The Art of Comics aren't prejudiced and ignorant, however. Instead, they seem genuinely interested in, and knowledgeable about, the subjects they address in 10 rather diverse essays. I disagree with them on a lot of things, but that's not because they're ignorant or stupid, it's just because I think they got some things wrong, and that could happen to anybody (even myself on occasion, I must confess).

I'll address my problems with some of the analyses in the book, but I'd of course encourage anyone to read the book themselves and form their own opinion. Here goes:

Chapter 1: Redefining Comics, by John Holbo

… argues that the definition of comics should include daily panels, like the Family Circus. His reasoning seems to be that comics evolved out of Punch-style cartoons, that it's to hard to exclude works like Michelangelo's roof to the Sixtine Chapel etc. with McCloud's definition, and that even one-panel cartoons are sequential; a sequence of one that implies several different moment within itself.

I can't agree with Holbo's reasoning. There is a clear difference between having to imply different moments within a panel and being able to choose to do so if you want to, because it furthers your narrative better than doing so in two or more panels. And we most certainly don't have to let the Family Circus into the comics family just because the Bayeux Tapestry doesn't look like ordinary comics, that's not a logical reason.

Chapter 2: The Ontology of Comics, by Aaron Meskin

… addresses the definition of comics from a different angle; that by defining them as multiple works of art, you can get past the problems of other definitions (like McCloud's) with excluding certain works of art from the category of comics. "[C]omics and graphic novels are typically multiple works of art rather than mere copies, and in virtue of this they allow for simultaneous but spatially-distinct and unconnected reception points. In other words, different people can experience them at the same time and in significantly different locations."

I think both Holbo and Meskin are needlessly complicates the issue of definitions. If they'd separate the form of comics from the published works, they'd probably be able to escape some of the problems with the definitions that they now have to jump through all sorts of rhetorical hoops to try to solve. Thus, the original pages that would be published in the legendary Action Comics issue were in the comics form, and the printed pages were also. And honestly, the Sixtine Chapel roof isn't really comics at all, and it's really not all that hard to exclude it even from a McCloud-ish definition. What we have to realize is that definitions – at least in the humanities – tend to get very fuzzy at the edges when you look at them closely enough. The solution to that isn't generally to add more complexity to the definition that creates new fuzzy areas while making it more unwieldy, but to apply a modicum of common sense when making a judgement of what to include and exclude at those fuzzy edges of the definition.

Chapter 3: Comics and Collective Authorship, by Christy Mag Uidhir

… looks at the problem of who should be counted as author in collectively created works with an editor, writer, penciller, inker, colorist, and a letterer. Uidhir's solution is to a) use the formula "authorship-of-a-work-as-'X'" rather than "authorship-of-a-work", b) try to decide whether the contribution a person makes is sufficiently substantive to him/her count as one of the authors.

I really don't think those conclusions warrant the formal logic that precedes them as Uidhir builds his case; they're a little bit too easy to reach by commonsense reasoning.

Chapter 4: Comics and Genre, by Catharine Abell

… tries to define what is genre in comics but gets a bit lost in all the categories and terminology, proposing that "genres are sets of conventions that have developed as means of adressing particular interpretative and/or evaluative problems, and have a history of co-instantation within a community, such that a work's belonging to some genre generates interpretative and evaluative expectations among the members of that community. To belong to some genre, a work must be produced in a community in which its constitutive conventions have a history of co-instantiation and must be produced in accordance with some subset of those conventions that is sufficient to distinguish the set of conventional at issue from all other sets of conventions that have developed as means of addressing interpretative and/or evaluative concerns and have a history of co-instantiation within the community in which the work was produced. A work is produced in accordance with a convention if and only if it both has features of the type picked out by the convention at issue and its maker gave the work those features so that the convention would apply to it."

Not only is that simply too convoluted, I really don't understand why a work couldn't be assigned to a genre based on its own qualities, regardless of what intentions the creator had when creating it. Basically, to me, Abell's chapter (like Uidhir's) addresses what is pretty much a non-problem.

Chapter 5: Wordy pictures: Theorizing the Relationship between Image and Text in Comics, by Thomas E. Wartenberg

… argues that the image is the most important part of the comic as it doesn't need words to be comics, and it's hard to disagree with that, but it's also hard to see it as an important breakthrough. He also doesn't want to exclude single-panels from the comics definition, but again the reasons for doing so seem a bit thin. Wartenberg points to how The Yellow Kid is generally held to be the first newspaper strip besides being a single panel comic, but that something "is held to be" something by some is a pretty poor argument for defining it that way.

Again, I think something would be gained from separating the definition of the comic form – basically a sequence of pictures (intentionally) creating a narrative – from the issue of whether some published work should count as a "comic" or not. For example, The Far Side is a cartoon that occasionally used the comics format (like with the cow walking up to the farmer's door, ringing the doorbell, and then returning to grazing before the bewildered farmer opened the door), whereas Peanuts is a comic strip that occasionally was comprised of a single panel. While the strip wasn't in a comics but a cartoon format in those instances, there's little doubt that Peanuts was a comic strip overall.

Chapter 6: What's So Funny? Comic Content in Depiction, by Patrick Maynard

… basically argues that humor strips signal their ephemeral content by being published on the comics page and by being drawn in a simple, cartoony style. 

Chapter 7: The Language of Comics, by Darren Hudson Hick

… treats panels as a basic unit in the not language but syntax of comics. I do think Hick, as a philosopher, is perhaps a bit too eager to try and understand comics as a language akin to natural languages, when it is in fact anything but, but he reaches the pretty reasonable conclusion that "although discussing comics as a natural language is perhaps a strech, it seems not unreasonable to talk of them as being language-like – as constituting a pseudo-language – operating in many ways like a natural language." Like I said, not unreasonable, but why treat comics as a "pseudo-languages" instead of just comics? Why not just analyze how comics actually achieve the effects they achieve?

Chapter 8: Making Comics into Film, by Henry John Pratt

… makes the somewhat silly argument that comics are especially good to adapt into movies because they unlike paintings are narrative, and unlike literature works with pictures, and are already cut into scenes just like films are.

(There are a couple of chapters more, but I didn't find them sufficiently interesting to take extensive notes on them.)

So, there you have it. Quite obviously, I have a lot of reservations about the analyses and conclusions put forth in this book, but I applaud the authors and editors for the effort, and would encourage anybody with a serious interest in the comics medium to read it and make up their own mind.

… But I do think you'll actually get way more insights about the comics medium by reading Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and Making Comics. Seriously.

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